Take Warren Buffett. Investors read his annual Berkshire Hathaway Chairman’s Letter like it was Moses’ tablets from on high, mostly to enjoy his wit and wisdom. Well, okay, mostly to glean the secrets of the world’s savviest investor. But how many investment letters get quoted for decades afterward? Mr. Buffetts’ do, because he’s a wizard at figures—the rhetorical as well as the business kind.
For instance, in his 2004 letter he said that a timely investor is one who’s “fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful.” That’s a first-class chiasmus, though Figaro doubts that he’d use the term. “It’s far better to buy a wonderful company at a fair price than a fair company at a wonderful price,” Buffett said. Another nice chiasmus.Try it yourself when you want your writing to stick out. It’s not a question of whether we’re against Google. It’s whether Google is against us.
Besides using snazzy ways to change the usual word order, Buffett also likes one of Figaro’s own favorite devices: taking clichés literally. Here’s a quote from a panel discussion he did in 2008: “I try to buy stock in businesses that are so wonderful that an idiot can run them. Because sooner or later, one will.” See what he did? He took the cliché, “an idiot can run it,” and imagined that it wasn’t a cliché at all. Why prefer something that an idiot can run, if an idiot will never run it?
Here’s another Buffet cliché-bender, from a talk he gave to MBA students in 2003: “I like to shoot fish in a barrel. But I like to do it after the water has run out.” Oldest cliché in the book. But Buffett was trying to illustrate that, in investing, he liked a sure thing to be even surer. And what’s a surer thing than fish in a barrel of water? Fish in a barrel without water.
When he wanted to illustrate how underlings tend to come up with projections that justify a CEO’s foolish acquisition, Buffett undermined the cliché, “the emperor has no clothes”: “Only in fairy tales are emperors told that they are naked.”
And Buffett knows how to define terms to get the upper hand in an argument. “Price is what you pay,” he said. “Value is what you get.” It reminds me of the late, lamented cartoon strip “Shoe,” when the son asks his journalist dad, “Why are you staring out the window? You should be typing.” Dad answers, “Typists type. Writers stare out windows.”
If you really want to achieve immortality, though, talk like Yogi Berra, the man who famously said “If you find a fork in the road, take it,” and “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” When you abandon logic to achieve a higher wisdom: that’s a figure called a yogiism. Warren Buffett is good at this, too. “Occasionally,” he said, “a man must rise above principles.” You have to love a man like that—and people do.
Easy for Figaro and Warren to say, right? Well, writing figuratively does take practice. One way to do it is to take an expression you admire and see how it varies from plain ordinary speech. Take a quote you like, and then write it as you’d usually say it. I call this technique “unwriting.” Take, for instance, another Buffett quote:
“Beware of geeks bearing formulas.”
Next, unwrite it:
“You should be skeptical of number crunchers and their computer models.”
Now ask yourself how Buffett’s quote varies from the unwritten version. As he likes to do, he twisted a cliché—“Beware of Greeks bearing gifts.” The old saying probably occurred to him when he was thinking of computer geeks. Hmmm. Beware of geeks… Beware of Greeks! Bearing…um, formulas! As I say, it takes practice.
Meanwhile, you’ve already learned one of the secrets to being Warren Buffett: speak figuratively. All you have to do to complete the picture is to become an investment wizard and make more money than anybody in the world. Personally, Figaro hasn’t even figured out mutual funds yet. But you have to start somewhere.